At least nine such activists were arrested in January 2018 and accused of spying on IRGC missile sites. Monga Bay notes that the charges stem, at least in part, from environmental researchers’ use of camera traps to monitor the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah.
However, the IRGC and the Iranian judiciary eventually pushed most of the relevant cases to their extreme, charging five of the detainees with a vaguely-defined crime that can lead to the death penalty. In addition, one of the prisoners, Kavous Seyed-Emami, died under suspicious circumstances in February, and his family has vigorously disputed the regime’s claim that he committed suicide in his cell.
The Monga Bay article reiterates information that was first made public in October regarding the charges of “spreading corruption on Earth.” It underscores that cases against the five people in question were built gradually, over the course of approximately nine months, during which time they were afforded no access to legal representation or other rights of due process. The situation has accordingly been subject to wide-ranging international condemnation, which has no doubt been amplified by the fact that the Seyed-Emami was an Iranian-Canadian dual national and thus was an example of the Iranian regime’s violence not only against environmentalists and the activist community but also against supposed sources of Western “infiltration” of Iranian society.
The two repressive phenomena may be connected in more ways than one. The IRGC and other hardline entities have exhibited particular paranoia about that infiltration in the wake of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which some Iranian officials viewed as an abandonment of the regime’s ideological opposition to the West. The mass arrest of environmental activists thus coincided with a broader crackdown on dissent and criticism of existing government, and some have suggested that it was also retribution for criticism of IRGC disregard for the environmental impact of new missile installations.
Tehran has naturally targeted the US and Israel with accusations that they have spied on missile sites or otherwise attempted to undermine the missile program. Soon after the nine environmentalists were arrested, Hassan Firuzabadi, a military adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made the bizarre claim that foreign intelligence agencies had used lizards to “attract atomic rays” and identify the locations of uranium mines. The claim has no basis in science, but it hinted at Tehran’s embrace of conspiracy theories that would allow knowledge of wildlife to be portrayed as evidence of espionage.
Of course, the regime’s attempts to “expose” foreign infiltration are often much more straightforward. In recent years, several Western nationals have been detained by regime authorities, apparently on the basis of nothing other than their connections to foreign countries that Tehran describes as “enemies.” At least five persons with American citizenship or permanent resident status are currently detained in Iran. And while none of them are known to have joined the environmentalist detainees in facing down the death penalty, this does not mean that the American prisoners are safe.
One of those prisoners has received renewed attention from Western media in recent days because of the risk that continued detention poses to his life. On Monday, NPR ran a story on Babak Namazi’s efforts to secure the release of his 82-year-old father Baquer, whose health has been deteriorating since he was first imprisoned nearly three years ago, and who was recently diagnosed with epilepsy. Babak’s brother and Baquer’s other son, Siamak Namazi is also being held in Iran and also holds American citizenship. Both men are serving a 10-year sentence, but Baquer’s advocates were quick to warn that he was unlikely to serving that term in the harsh conditions of Iran’s Evin Prison.
Baquer is reportedly on medical furlough as a result of life-threatening health conditions, but Iranian authorities have a long track record of providing prisoners with just enough medical attention to save their lives, only to return them to their cells before they have had a chance to fully recover. Over the long term, such practices effectively constitute a way of gradually and informally executing certain political prisoners, without adding to the statistics regarding executions in what is already the world’s most prolific user of the death penalty, on a per-capita basis.
Of course, by charging five environmentalists with a capital offense, the Iranian regime has recently demonstrated that it is not shy about bolstering the number of official executions. Accordingly, the Iran Human Rights website issued a report last week warning that the Islamic Republic might be on the verge of a “new wave of executions” following an eight day period during which at least 15 people were put to death. On the eighth day, three executions were carried out in public in the city of Shiraz, in a demonstration of the regime’s ongoing disregard for criticism and international standards of criminal justice.